Be-Doop, Be-Doop. Oo-Ah, Yeah!
Let Your Fingers Do the Talkin’ . . .

h1 December 29th, 2006 by jules

I’ve had in my possession for many weeks now (as in, it’s now technically overdue at the library; I hang my librarian-head in shame) The Deaf Musicians by the legendary Pete Seeger and the poet Paul Dubois Jacobs with illustrations by
R. Gregory Christie (published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in October of this year). I’m finally getting around to my review. I can’t let this one slide.

Can someone give me an amen? As a sign language interpreter myself (what I did for a living before becoming a librarian), of course I’m going to be drawn to this book, but with that aside, it works on many levels and for many ages as the snazzy, finger-snappin’, thought-provoking title that it is. Oo-ah, be-doop, be-doop, oo-ah, yeah (to quote the text itself) . . . And let’s not forget that it’s also illustrated by the talented Coretta Scott King honor winner R. Gregory Christie (don’t miss his appealing site), whom I will always love for saying that his unusual compositions are a “challenge for the viewer to break away from the established fundamental belief that all children’s books must be realistic or cute.” Ah, sweet. He firmly lodged himself in my heart forever and ever and ever with that comment.

In The Deaf Musicians, we meet Lee, a piano man. He plays nightly at a jazz club with his very own, idiosyncratic “snazzy style. It went something like this: Plink-a-plink-BOMP-plink-plink. Yimba-timba-TANG-ZANG-ZANG.” But, alas, Lee’s losing his hearing and is ‘afeared to tell his chummy bandmates about his loss. After trying to cover for him on stage for as long as they can, the bandmates eventually have to let him go. Dude, his music was sounding like this: “Ronk. Phip. Tonk.” Ouch.

Heading home from the jazz club that very night, he sees an advertisement for a school for the deaf and decides it’s time to learn something new. That Lee. He’s a go-getter, hmm?

Now, as someone who is fluent in American Sign Language myself, I sometimes get turned off by gushy, overdone, grandiloquent sign language metaphors. I know lots of interpreters who feel this way, too. Why? ‘Cause it’s the hardest dang language you could possibly ever try to learn — and I say that with great respect. Don’t describe it in cloying, excessively poetic terms, thanks very much. Yes, it’s a gorgeous language, but it also has its own syntax and can do things that English can only dream of. Usually, people who still haven’t grasped the fact that, yes, it’s a real, bonafide language are the ones who tend to wax poetic and wax mushy about it, as if it’s just pictures in the air. (Only ASL I students are allowed to be this way; then, we hope, they get over it).

But, fortunately for us all, The Deaf Musicians doesn’t do this. It gets close, mind you, but Seeger’s and Jacobs’ acknowledgement of the inherent rhythm of ASL and their likening of ASL to jazz (ASL’s movements, the signer’s body gestures, those hand-flappin’ shapes in the air) totally works. And that’s because . . . well, let’s just put it this way: Ever seen someone sign who was afraid to be expressive? Afraid to let their face show emotion (the face is where most of the meaning of ASL is depicted — not in the hands)? Afraid to go with the flow, to find their own rhythm, their own shish-shish-shoogle and boo-bang-bing? It’s tantamount to listening to someone speak in a monotone, huh? Yup. Then there are those signers who find their own, internal jazz tunes (to run with the book’s metaphor here) and remind us of ASL’s expressive power. And have you ever seen a really kickin’ musical interpreter at work before — on t.v. or at a concert? ‘Nuf said.

So, Lee learns some ASL, makes some friends. Riding the subway one night with his new friend Max, who “play{s} the sax” (meaning, he signs some really wicked-cool ASL), he realizes that not only is it “easy to talk over the racket of the subway cars and rush-hour crowds,” but he also can jam with Max — jam with the language, that is:

On one ride home, Lee and Max got to playing a song. They found they could follow each other perfectly. Lee played the notes of his piano — Plink-a-plink-BOMP-plink-plink. Yimba-timba-TANG-ZANG-ZANG. Max played the notes of his sax — Doodle-bop-bop, boo-bang-bing. Each musician heard the music in his own mind.

No one — in Christie’s rather retro, stylish, colorful paintings — is holding any instruments, mind you. It’s the animated, vivacious, jazzy rhythm of ASL, cats. Swingin’.

Then, warming the hearts of interpreters everywhere, Ellie — a sign language interpreter, “a translator of sound” who “knew all the great jazz standards by heart” — shows up. They need a “singer,” you see. Gotta love it. Oo-ah, be-doop, be-doop, oo-ah, yeah!

My oh my, what do we have here? A story about the singular pulse and swing and tempo of ASL, the world’s most beautiful language (I’m a bit biased here, I admit); a story about a man and his new direction in life, his elasticity and vigor (I’ll say — when not able to thrive in his career, he doesn’t miss a beat, so to speak, and just sets a new course for his life. Impressive); and a jubilant, celebratory, and flat-out lovely way to say that there is more than one way to hear music (and, in this case, see music), more than one way to make your own songs, to create your own “snazzy style” — something which both children and adults can dig (Dig it. Snap, snap).

And in the book’s afterword, Seeger writes of working alongside musical interpreters at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival, a music festival he participates in annually. “It’s a reminder of the power of music even when it can’t be heard,” he writes. And, to bring home the book’s primary strength, his final words are: “The real music is in people joining together.”

I’m tellin’ ya, those signers can play that mess just like it don’t mean a thing. Gives an all new meaning to the jazz slang “finger zinger.” Get a move on, and pick up this jazzy, hot hipster of a picture book. Doodle-bop-bop. Boo-bang-bing. Shish-shish-shoogle.

Signing off for now (yes, ouch, but I couldn’t pass up that deliciously bad pun) . . .

5 comments to “Be-Doop, Be-Doop. Oo-Ah, Yeah!
Let Your Fingers Do the Talkin’ . . .”

  1. Thanks, Julie, for this very entertaining book review. My sister is also a librarian (in Mississippi).

    Happy New Year,

  2. Wow, Julie. This sounds good. I will hunt for it at the library. Thank you for writing about this book; I’d not heard of it until your review.

  3. Hi, Beth!

    And thanks, Susan. I stumbled upon this in the local public library and had to read it. Christie’s characters in this one aren’t as elongated as they typically are in his other works, but it’s got a 1950s retro-feel that is grooovay and that works well with the text.


  4. This has nothing to do with your topic, but Happy New Year, Eisha and Jules! Thanks for blogging all year long. Let’s all have a blast in 2007!

  5. […] Climbing, Girls and the Schneider Family Book Award-winning The Deaf Musicians (which I reviewed here around this time last year) and a whole slew of other great books you can see here and this […]

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